AAU Is Accused of Glorifying a Limited View of Higher Education

June 03, 2014

The New America Foundation gave voice on Tuesday to a simmering resentment toward the Association of American Universities, saying its system for ranking research universities is a net negative for higher education.

The foundation, in a report by Kevin Carey, its director of education policy, suggested the AAU undergo an overhaul in which its heavy emphasis on research spending as a membership criterion became more balanced by attention to institutional success in teaching students.

Through the AAU, Mr. Carey said, a "tiny cabal of venerable institutions has done more to shape and, increasingly, harm the cause of higher learning in America than any other group one could name."

That harm, he said, comes from institutions’ fruitlessly wasting time and money chasing AAU membership, and from universities’ worrying more about superficial measures of research activity than about more-substantive matters such as the degree to which they are actually helping students.

The AAU pushed back, saying it has wider membership criteria and pays more attention to student education than Mr. Carey acknowledges. The foundation’s report "is deeply flawed by its misunderstanding of AAU’s current membership," the association said in a written response attributed to its president, Hunter R. Rawlings III.

The exchange revived an issue that last gained widespread prominence in early 2011, when the 62-member AAU, an advocacy group founded in 1900, kicked out the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Syracuse University, which was also facing eviction due to relatively low numbers of research dollars, left on its own around the same time.

Before that, AAU membership had been fairly stable, with the overwhelming majority of its universities having been part of the association for decades. But the two departures followed an AAU effort to put greater numerical precision on its eligibility standards. That was driven by changes over the years that had left some existing member institutions with considerably smaller levels of research activity than some notable nonmember institutions.

AAU membership has become a widely recognized reputational yardstick for institutional quality. As such, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, a 102-year member, fought hard to prevent its dismissal. Its sympathizers outside Nebraska faulted the AAU on a variety of grounds, including the association’s use of broad statistical measures more than subjective criteria in choosing its members, and its emphasis on hard sciences over liberal arts.

New Approach Suggested

The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan policy institute, echoed such complaints. The AAU is using "mechanistic formulas" for rankings that its members reject in other contexts, while applying them to a very limited slice of what a research university should aspire to accomplish, Mr. Carey said. (Mr. Carey also serves as a columnist for The Chronicle.)

The AAU’s approach is especially problematic for public universities, which are vastly underrepresented among AAU members, relative to how many students they educate, Mr. Carey said.

The association’s membership list currently has 34 public and 26 private institutions in the United States, and two Canadian members. Mr. Carey suggested a more-balanced 82-member organization with 69 public universities.

In the central analytic portion of his 15-page report, he proposed achieving that ratio through an 11-point system for AAU membership that would include measures of research spending but also Pell Grant recipients, degrees awarded to ethnic-minority students, and net price for low-income undergraduates.

The AAU’s response did not directly address those suggestions, though Mr. Rawlings said the association rejected the suggestion that the AAU discriminated against universities on the basis of student-body size and admission rates.

"This is absurd," he said, "since anybody who actually examines AAU’s membership criteria—or looks at our current membership list—will see that AAU does not include any of these factors in making membership decisions." Mr. Rawlings also cited the AAU’s continuing five-year initiative to improve undergraduate teaching in the sciences as evidence of its commitment to education beyond lab research.

The AAU has said previously it would lose effectiveness if it grew significantly beyond its current size, and Mr. Rawlings said the organization intended to maintain "a balance of public and private" universities.

Although his report was titled "Building a New AAU," Mr. Carey said it was unrealistic to expect the AAU would actually adopt his ideas. Instead, he said he hoped that institutions now spending so much time and money trying to gain AAU membership would create their own organization that emphasized quality in both research and teaching.

Yet he also acknowledged that in placing such a high value on research, universities were affected by outside factors beyond the AAU's membership criteria—such as the much higher amounts of federal grant money devoted to research rather than teaching—as well as their own internal tenure and promotion policies.

"The AAU," he conceded, "represents the values that the academy itself has voluntarily established." At best, universities reflect a competition for multiple missions. "The trick," he said, "is to manage them in a way that is in the best interest of society at large."